At the Movies

The Comedy Comet

Robin Williams was an actor with a unique ability to start a sentance making you cry, and end it with you laughing.

JULY 7th, 2020

© Time Magazine


ny actor will tell you that comedy is the industry’s hardest artform to successfully achieve. Timing is everything; building up the joke slowly and then striking hard with the punchline. It’s a skill which can be hard to achieve for most, though for a rare few it becomes as easy as breathing. But what if, as an actor, you can effectively place your footing into two differing styles of acting? This talent goes beyond skill, it is a one instilled from birth, and it is so rare, so precious that when an actor comes along with the natural ability to do so, we cherish them above all. And no actor, in recent years, has been as treasured as Robin Williams.

For many people, Robin Williams’ very name instils a sense of nostalgia. With childhood defining roles beneath his belt, he made countless movie-goers smile, cry and above all else – laugh.

Robin pictured for Times Magazine in 2014 - © Times Magazine

As a child he was deemed a natural entertainer with the ability to make the mundane anything but. His mother, Laurie, was where he credited he garnered his sense of humour from. Their relationship was close, even though he spent many years being raised by the family’s maid. For the most part, William’s had a happy childhood, and with two older half-brothers, he would use his humour to compete for attention. Unbeknown to the young Robin, it would ignite his ability to shine on any stage and outshine anyone he shared it with.

Throughout the 70s, Williams attained a full scholarship to the prestigious acting school, Juilliard in New York City, becoming one of only twenty students accepted into the freshman class that year. It was a huge achievement for Robin and demonstrated how talented the student actor was. What became a greater accomplishment was John Houseman’s acceptance of Williams into the Advanced Program, alongside a certain Superman – Christopher Reeve.

Whilst at school, Robin’s eccentric and wild performances received criticism from his teachers, who described him as nothing more than a “simple stand-up comedian”. Not one to take reproach to heart, he would go on to silence his critics with a stirring performance as an old man in Tennessee William’s Night of the Iguana. Christopher Reeve would write of his friend’s performance: “He simply was the old man. I was astonished by his work and very grateful that fate had thrown us together.”

Neither Robin nor Christopher had any idea of the future which would befall them – the success, the fame and tragedy. But irrespective, their friendship was formed in the classes and on the stages of Juilliard and remained up until Reeve’s untimely death in 2004.

Robin pictured with Christopher Reeves - © Getty Images

Robin always described Christopher Reeve as his ‘brother from another mother’. And after Reeve suffered horrific injuries in a horse-riding accident, the beloved Superman struggled with his new life as a quadriplegic. Williams would go onto pay for most of his friend’s medical bills and the financial support of his family. But money wasn’t the only way Robin sought to support Reeve. As the actor recovered in hospital, depression had taken hold. “Life was grim, my whole world had just stalled,” Reeve recollected. “I struggled to understand my place in a life which no longer felt like my own.”

Robin, having heard of his friend’s battle arranged to surprise him in hospital. Dressing up as a German doctor, Williams insisted that Reeve turn over and have an exam, a proctology exam. The former Superman was surprised and noticing the smirks across his family’s faces, eventually recognised his old friend. The joke became the first time Reeve’s had smiled, let alone laughed since the accident.

These acts of warm humour became a running theme in the life of Robin Williams. His ability to light up a room was legendary, and he was consistently asked to meet with children in hospital and travel to entertain the troops on the front line. He famously stipulated in his rider that any production he worked on should actively employ homeless people and train them on the art of filmmaking. For Robin, his comedy was therapy for all those who watched, listened and met him. Yet for the comedian himself, it was anything but.

As Robin’s career began to swell, so did the problems. Drug addiction, alcoholism and depression were beginning to fracture the funniest man on earth. Privately, the outgoing and laugh-out-loud Robin Williams was withdrawn, quiet and timid. After the juggernaut success of movies, Mrs Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, Jumanji, Good Morning Vietnam, Patch Adams and Disney’s Aladdin, Williams was arguably one of Hollywood’s most in-demand stars.

Robin Williams dressed as Mrs Doubtfire - © Warner Bros

For Robin, the bright lights of La-La-Land were a world away from the classes of Juilliard, or the stages of comedy Mork & Mindy. But even at the early points of his career, he was defining a change in comedy. The aforementioned popular sitcom became Robin’s first major hit, and so impressive was his performance, producers struggled to capture many of his hilarious physical jokes. The result was to place a fourth camera (usually a sitcom only has three) which would be constantly trained on Robin. Thanks to Williams, every sitcom since is now recorded by four cameras.

After a successful run in many feel-good tv-shows and movies, which articulated Robin’s comedy timing, an altogether different role would emerge in the Oscar Winning Good Will Hunting.

For many, although Robin Williams is recognised as the Genie, the Scottish nanny, the happy-go-lucky doctor or a radio host, his performance as Dr Sean Maguire showcased his unrivalled talent as an actor. Emotive, serious and tame, Robin exuded a formidable and riveting masterclass of acting. Winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Williams established himself as much more than the ‘stand-up comic’, his earliest critics had labelled him.

But once again, Robin’s issues with depression and addiction spiked beneath the comedic surface, though he never let this show publicly. One of Williams’ closest friend was Billy Crystal, who alongside Whoopi Goldberg, hosted the annual Comic Relief fundraiser. Raising money for charity the trio would ignite the stage with showstopping performances and comedy galore. But as the years would continue, Robin was struggling more and more to keep up the energy he had always been noted for.

Eventually it resulted in a hospitalisation in 2009 due to heart problems. After a period of recuperation, Robin returned into the spotlight once again, yet in 2014, the actor would return to battling his demons. Admitting himself into a treatment centre for alcoholism; depression would also follow, though this time doctors would discover something much more sinister.

Pictured alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal - © Getty Images

Following a brain scan, Doctors diagnosed Robin with early stage Parkinson’s Disease. Although he would never share the information publicly, those closest to him were told – one being Billy Crystal. “I had never seen him look so frightened,” Crystal remembers. “Usually he was this big ball of energy sparking at any and every opportunity. Instead he just sat there, hugged me and cried. It was as if the lights, which had been so strong, so bright, were slowly dimming and nobody could do anything to stop it.”

As his condition progressively got worse, Williams began to step back from the limelight. Occasionally appearing in movies and on shows, eventually the lights which had been dimming went out.

On August 11, 2014, Robin Williams committed suicide. At first, no one in the public really knew why, as his Parkinson’s diagnosis wasn’t public knowledge. Depression and suspected drug addiction were to blame, though what became more apparent was the extremity of the disease which had plagued the last year of his life.

An autopsy after Robin’s death found that the actor had suffered from “diffuse Lewy body dementia”. Commonly described as “the terrorist inside the brain”, the condition had caused Williams to experience prolonged spikes of fear and anxiety, depression, insomnia, memory loss, paranoia and delusions. Although suicide became Robin’s official cause of death, for many, including his family, the presence of Lewy bodies took his life.

Robin’s death sent shockwaves around the world, and many were left surprised by how grief-stricken they felt after hearing the news. Theatre lights around the world went dark, flowers were laid outside his home, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even outside the house used in the movie Mrs Doubtfire. Tributes poured in from the friends and colleagues who had worked with him, and for a silent moment, the world darkened ever so slightly.

The acclaimed actor was renowned for his voicing talents as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin - © Disney

I started by stating that comedy is the industry’s hardest artform to successfully achieve. Whilst that may be true, Robin Williams demonstrated something much harder to authentically replicate – humanity. It is why we all fell in love with him. He could start a sentence with a performance that could make you cry and end it with you laughing.

Robin once said: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” His life and career underline this outlook. The loud, brash, unapologetic exuberance of Robin Williams was akin to a comet flashing across the night sky – its passes by too quickly, yet it’s impossible to ignore.

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